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Selling a Self: an accidentally happy ending

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Essay | 25 minute read
Modern Love: The last part in our online dating series finds this weary writer giving up, and then finding love on a dating website. But she would still never do it again

Read the first three parts of Grace McCleen’s Selling a Self here – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

And so I began my indiscriminate, all-out ‘liking’ of any man on ‘Singletown’ that was taller than me. Then, as even that was taking too long (you have to click on a profile to see someone’s height), I simply began ‘liking’ men who just looked tolerable, regardless of how tall they were, whether or not they had children; anyone and everyone, in fact – from Pavarotti’s lookalikes to Richard Briers’s. Among those I ‘liked’ I thought I even spied one of the very men (a male model) I went on a date with ten years ago; the one who promised to email me and didn’t. So, I thought, he is not so superior after all; he is here, the same as me.

I ‘liked’ over 140 men. There were not many more than that on the site. I ‘liked’ and I messaged for England and Scotland and Wales:

‘Hi *,’ I wrote. ‘I believe in the power of words too. I’ve written a couple of novels. Have you read any good books recently?’

‘Hi *, What sort of things do you invent? I guess I invent things too; I write novels under a pen name.’

‘Hi *, That looks like a cracking Yorkshire pudding in one of your photos; you can’t beat a roast dinner.’

‘Hi Delightful, What are some of your favorite topics to discuss (you mentioned you want a sparring partner)?’

‘Hi *, You say you like the north. Are you a northerner yourself? I’m Welsh but have lived in London for about eight years now.’

‘Hi *, I can’t work out what you do during the day: software on pirate ships or arts and heritage. In any case, it sounds as though you’ve have an interesting life! How long have you lived in London?’


My second subscription was about to expire but I knew I was nearing the end when I sat down to log in one morning and jumped up again and rushed to the toilet where I hung over the bowl, retching. I sat, back against the wall, shaking. My body, it seemed, could no longer stomach the rows of beaming, brooding, inviting faces; could no longer stomach the lines; the impossibly strange expressions; the nonsensical poses.

I considered paying for a subscription on yet another website, one with a less ‘high-brow’ image, appealing more to the masses, simply to see if it was as bad as ‘Singletown’. The trouble was that I would know instantly, within seconds of paying the £40 or £50 to the other website, whether I was still capable of only attracting the same calibre of men; the rest of the month would simply be more of the same. Of course, it could be different. But I had a hunch it would not; browsing profiles on the other website I was profoundly underwhelmed; at least on ‘Singletown’ they had intelligence even if it was matched a lot of the time with pretentiousness; here, as well as pensioners, the aesthetically and vertically challenged, social adjuncts and single-parents, there were bouncers and the unemployed.

I could think of only two more things to try. ‘I’ve decided to cancel my ST membership,’ I wrote to all 140 plus men who ignored me, and supplied them with my email address. When this resulted in nothing too, I deployed my swansong: ‘Hi there,’ I wrote, ‘I am writing an article for a newspaper about guys’ experiences on dating websites and wondered if you would be interested in taking part?’

I received two replies: ‘That is not the best opening line I’ve ever had… but full marks for originality,’ one man wrote. ‘Thank you,’ I replied, ‘But I really am writing an article on the above topic.’ ‘I get that,’ he wrote, ‘I was only joking. Interestingly this is not the first time I’ve been approached about something like this. I’m going to give it a pass. Best of luck though.’

‘Hi. Sure,’ another wrote, when I had given up and no longer had the energy to implement my plan. I thanked him for getting back to me, told him I had completed the article now but appreciated his ‘help’. ‘I’d be interested in reading it,’ he wrote. He had called my bluff and I panicked, unsure how to respond. Finally, too tired to pretend or even to care, I wrote, ‘Ok – there is no article. I was just so desperate to get any attention from men at all I was trying to meet them that way. Now you know the truth.’ ‘If it’s any consolation it’s the same this side,’ he replied surprisingly. ‘Honestly. Like trying to catch smoke :)’. Humbled, moved, shame-faced, albeit behind my screen, I wrote back: ‘It is some consolation, yes, thank you, as I can’t see anything ‘wrong’ with your profile at all. I’m sad that you obviously don’t like mine though. In fact what I was trying to do with the whole ‘survey’ idea is find out what is wrong with it – with me – maybe if you have a spare second you could tell me? I completely understand if not.’ Again, to my surprise, he responded: ‘K. Lemme check. It’s brutal, right?’ ‘Yes!’ I typed. ‘But brutal is what I need. Thank you, whoever you are.’ ‘We could all do with that :)’ he wrote.

Three days passed with no reply. ‘I guess my profile must be pretty bad if you couldn’t think of anything to say at all,’ I wrote on the fourth, and he replied: ‘Sorry. Right. Your fourth pic is your best; the holiday snap. Got any more? Doing stuff that interests you? Your profile could describe anyone and everyone. Are you a sunrise or sunset person? Handstand or cartwheel. Bridget Jones or About a Boy? Top or bottom. Lights on or off. Maybe a but risqué. (Bit)’.

Moved, I once again replied: ‘Thank you so much. This has really helped. I have no idea I came across as so bland. Ironically I’m about the ‘least bland’ person you could meet. But there’s no point doing anything now as my subscription ends in a day or so. Very best of luck.’

The advice seemed sound, and if I had not had contradictory advice from at least two other people, if my subscription had not been about to run out, and if my health had been permitting – but mostly if I had simply had the energy – I would have changed my profile yet again. The fact is, though, I couldn’t win: my photos were not alluring enough, my write-up was too idiosyncratic and too specific; my photos were too provocative, my write-up too bland; whatever I had to offer as a person was simply not visible, not recognisable online.

I had always been afraid of this but now – surely – it had finally happened: men – en masse, all sorts, nearly 150 of them – had categorically answered the question I had been asking all my life: do men like me? And the answer to my question was a resounding ‘No’. There were still no answers at all to the two sub-questions that dogged me: How could I have been so stupid? What was wrong with me?

It had been a new experience to pursue men – and so desperately; previously I had endeavored to keep up a pretence of preoccupation (with work mainly) or indifference to male attention, hoping for simultaneous visibility and invisibility; approval and simply to be left alone without being jeered at. This year I had crossed a line, albeit virtually; it had cost me everything and come to naught – and I finally realised that I simply did not have to do it anymore. And so, I did not.

The last ‘like’ I had was from a man who was purportedly 5’8, a self-confessed ‘Boring southerner living in London. Full set of teeth and one pair of nice shoes’. He extended an invitation that, given the circumstances, should have be impossible for me to turn down: ‘I’m not fussy,’ he wrote. ‘So feel free to get in touch…’


I am struck by the number of times I have used the phrase ‘real life’ in this series of articles. The phrase is now so ubiquitous that there is even an internet shorthand for it; our whole world reduced to two letters – ‘r.l.’ – in a pixelated interface that bears about as much resemblance to ‘real life’ as anything else to be found online. Funnily enough, there is now something called Virtual Reality dating, where a version of you can spend time in the same virtual space as your love interest, but without physically being there at all. Perhaps nothing sums up the oddness of our contemporary society, in which we crave but simultaneously distance ourselves from human contact, so well; though apparently there is also a rising trend of people paying someone online to watch them in real time, generally watch them have sex, but sometimes just watch them.

It seems to me that never before have relations between the sexes been so unnatural; not only is addiction to porn emasculating men and rendering them impotent when confronted with real, live women, but many people’s first interactions are through the filter of a screen. To me ‘natural’ means ‘simple’, a meaning suggested by the word’s etymology: ‘having a certain status by birth’, ‘direct lineage’; it means something that doesn’t have that many stages. It means acting upon an impulse or feeling without mediation, having direct relation to someone or thing. Being hungry and picking something growing in the ground and eating it. Of course, we can’t do that anymore, either; it isn’t safe – and right there is the problem: the whole of life now is so far removed from any kind of source – hence, perhaps, why we are obsessed with sources and all that is ‘natural’ and try to replicate it. In spite of all our advancements – in fact, because of them – we find ourselves increasingly alienated from our fellow humans.

We turn to remote, electronic and robotic interaction instead of flesh and blood. Millions are lonely yet millions are crushed up against one another every day on trains and buses, streets and marketplaces, not daring to speak or look one another in the eye. Millions are single and don’t want to be, partly because people (especially women) can now be single; economic and social conditions no longer make marriage a necessity, children are a choice. But there is more to the predicament than that: there is a trend towards more transient and fewer relationships, a trend which sees boundaries blurring between romantic, platonic, sexual, casual, committed, polyamorous, monogamous, anonymous relationships, and a few other things too.

Commuters (Corey Agopian/Unsplash)

Everything remains itself for shorter and shorter periods of time, everything seems, even as we look at it, to be on its way to becoming everything else (evident, if nowhere else, in the number of neologisms yoking together two activities: vlog, snapchat, chillax, staycation, emoticon, treggings, voicemail, facebook, sexting, glamping, listicle, cybercafé). Single gadgets perform more and more functions; business is pleasure, business is a hobby, shops are libraries, libraries bars, bars art spaces; cooperatives, social media platforms, life platforms; each and every person branches into each and every thing – into fashion, beauty, interior design, lifestyle, sport, cuisine, travel, spirituality, film-making, music, art, writing… Life is subdividing and diversifying as never before. Of course, this was always the way on our planet but it is now speeded up to such an extent it is clearly visible, and the usurpation of the ‘real’ by the virtual is just one more manifestation: computer games are now more absorbing than reality, cyber than bodily sex.

People, like the universe, are moving away from each other, and will probably continue to do so. A tendency that began with the industrial revolution and the advent of significant numbers living side by side in cities, cemented by the importance laid upon individuality by the Modernist movement and augmented by the takeover of ‘real’ by artificial intelligence in the second half of the twentieth century now sees its apotheosis in terrorism at one end of the spectrum and reality TV at the other. Paradoxically, though we are moving away from each other, our communication becomes evermore speedy: nowadays there is an instant web, instant news, instant attack, instant fame, instant meals, Instagram, instant street view; everything lasts a short amount of time, is at several removes from its source, and is distorted and refracted by multiple modes of dissemination.

Everything in the Western world is easy to come-by, with a modicum of money, except ‘love’ or a lasting relationship; the Holy Grail for many. Perhaps these develpoments are simply by-products of humans moving closer to their ‘natural’ state: perhaps we were not meant to mate for life and for the first time in history the majority of us are free to live this way; but then why the heartache, the devastation when a relationship ends, the manipulation and utilisation of the desire for romantic love by the media? Why do so many people devote years to finding ‘the one’? Why does lasting love still exert an irresistible pull on our emotions?

One in five relationships in the UK now starts online. For gay couples the figure is apparently higher. This suggests that however difficult online dating can be, ‘real life’ also has its challenges. Online dating now has its place, and a possibly valuable one, and there are several stereotypes regarding it that need to be done away with. One is that online dating websites and apps, by presenting an infinite supply of potential mates, devalue attitudes towards sex and relationships. Maybe for straight men this is somewhat true; their biological impulse to impregnate as many women as possible augmenting this opportunity too, no doubt.

Most straight women, however, still want the real deal; they still want romance and to find ‘the one’, as far as I can tell, and once they develop emotional ties to someone will be unlikely to want to move on fast. And this too is probably to do with the different way that most women are ‘made’. It is true that online dating appears to provide a plethora of choices that initially appeals to our human acquisitiveness; that people can, for a while, endlessly cycle through options looking for a ‘perfect’ partner in the belief they are just around the corner (in the belief that such a thing exists). It is also true that, at least in theory, they can become pickier about what they’re looking for, applying filters that allow them to select partners by their culinary, fiction or Netflix tastes. But as a straight woman in her mid-thirties I found such initial stipulations turned out to be idealistic and futile; in practice, pickiness wasn’t even an option; I counted myself lucky if the person I went on a date with was taller than me, less than ten years older and had at least a semblance of normality.

I disagree even more strongly with the view that online dating is weighted in women’s favour, women having their pick of suitors and free to reject left, right and centre. Perhaps this is true for twenty-something women but it is not true for older women, where the balance is weighted heavily in men’s favour – in fact I would argue that the male–female power imbalance is alive and well in few arenas to the extent that it is in online dating. Some men online have no idea why women deploy strategies such as ‘scattering’ (because they are desperate) and inadvertently reveal their own privileged position when they state that that they have to find someone to ‘tick all the boxes’; many older women, forced into a position of severe limitation and disempowerment due to the scarcity of interest from men their own age, settle wildly below their hopes and dreams, counting themselves lucky, I am sure, if their dates end up ticking any of their boxes at all. ‘[M]ost of the women on that site don’t even know what they want,’ the male user writes. On the contrary, women know what they want only too well but many of them are so far from attaining it they are forced to slash and burn their original criteria.

In spite of all that happened to me during my time on ‘Singletown’, it transpired that shortly before my subscription ended I met someone. For the curious among you he is (quite a bit) taller than me, one year older, has no children (or none that I know about) and no worrying oddities, or none I’ve discovered yet. I have not experienced a neurological symptom in the four months I have been dating him and my life bears no relation to my life this time last year. I also, thanks to ‘Singletown’, now have two male friends who I am delighted to know. If the reader is confused I sympathise; I myself am confused. I don’t know how to account for the fact that a crucible yielded something so pleasing and unexpected. Perhaps the sunny outcome (for the moment) to this ‘story’ is due to the subtle change worked by the antidepressants I began to take in my second month of online dating, and the car-crash trajectory my online dating took before then was fuelled by my fear, anger and loathing of the whole process; perhaps all those New Age thinkers are correct and we do indeed create our reality. I don’t know. At the moment, I am trying (not very hard, admittedly, because it is not very difficult) to be thankful for every small thing – and there are many small things; more than I ever anticipated. (Though this suggests the New Age thinkers are in fact wrong then, right?)

Photo by Roman Kraft/Unsplash

The state of mind I was in when I embarked on internet dating did me no favors – though being the kind of person who can take nothing on trust and needs copious amounts of proof for everything I struggle to see how a state of mind influences what and who we attract to ourselves (surely my state of mind wasn’t evident in my pictures; in my carefully and neutrally worded profile? But maybe it was). I concede that life seems to flow more easily when we attach no significance to a certain outcome.

I know that, in theory, taking care of yourself, discovering and pursuing your ‘passions’ and being physically and emotionally healthy go some way towards moving you closer to the possibility of encountering a loving relationship. I know, in theory, that real confidence comes when you know and love everything you are and everything you aren’t. It’s all theory. As far as I can see the best thing you can do is sit tight and get comfortable with where you already are. And perhaps that is what I did without realising it towards the end of my time on ‘Singletown’; I accepted the outcome (even before it had arrived) – my failure – stopped hoping to alter it, and hence freed it up to become something else.

What I can say is that since quitting online dating I have learnt a few things I wish I had known before: I learned that the website I was using had approximately a third more male users than female in the London area. Talking to my boyfriend I learned it is possible that in at least some of those instances my ‘failure’ may have been due to my dates’ hesitancy to take things to the next level rather than an outright rejection of me. A number of people have told me that I look better in ‘real life’ than in my online photos (my boyfriend says he was pleasantly surprised when he first caught sight of me, though I think this is partly to do with the fact that you still cannot see my body very much in my photos), and though I still find this hard to believe, it may also go some way to explaining my ‘failure’ too.

I also realised, a little late in that day, that some of the time you don’t receive replies online simply because the people you have contacted are themselves dating someone (I don’t know why I didn’t think of this at the time), and when reading the testaments below I realised that for all of my searching of heaven and earth to find an explanation as to why I was so spectacularly unsuccessful, the main reason may have been as simple as the fact that many straight male online daters are looking for women much younger than themselves; they probably assumed my photos were taken ten or more years ago. In school, college and university for a young man to date a girl the same age is quite normal, but as women age men grow cold, as the song says. This makes sense from a biological perspective, women becoming less fertile with age, so we can’t label men who want a family too superficial.

However, when these same men are themselves ten or twenty years older then the women they make advances towards nor can you blame the women for rejecting them. What percentage of relationships do you know in the ‘real world’ in which the man is ten, fifteen or even twenty years older than the woman? The double standard (i.e. women are generally content to date someone who is a similar age to them but most men are not), for whatever reason, means that as they age, more and more women are eschewed by more and more men. And despite the well-meaning male user’s advice, my hunch (which I arrived at not only from the large numbers of men who looked at and rejected my profile but the ‘blandness’ of many of the other women dater’s profiles) is that whatever I said or didn’t say in the written part of my profile wouldn’t have made much difference.

If I’ve learnt anything from online dating and the relationship (my first) that has ensued, it is that life is unfathomable; there is no pattern we can impose and no theories that can be held onto for any extended period of time; sooner or later our opinions and feelings will change. Most of us secretly have an idea how our lives will turn out, think we know roughly what is on the cards for us. But if we are brave enough to step out of what is familiar to us, to a stupendous (at times kamikaze) degree, reality can shift substantially. There is no pattern. Which is more or less to say: we have no concrete identity. There is no concrete anything, actually. Though who knows? Maybe my current state is a chimera and the reality I was convinced was waiting for me all along will reappear round some bend in the road in good time. Then I will say to myself: I knew it; I was right all along.

According to psychologists at the University of Chicago marriages resulting from online dating are 25 per cent more likely to last than those that arose from ‘real life’ meetings. They explain this partly by stating that online pairings tend to be based on a more shared value system than just ‘chemistry’ which can and often does fade over time. This may be true and I hope it is in view of the fact I am now in a relationship with a man I met online. But I view meeting him as a freak happenstance rather than something that would have happened anyway; I believe if I did online dating again, and again, and again, my success in finding a long-term partner would be zero. This may not be rational but it is my intuitive feeling. And so I am not sure I would recommend online dating to another women of roughly my age.

One advantage of dating on the type of website I registered with is that it enables you to meet people who have roughly the same aims as you; i.e. they will probably want, if not marriage, then a committed relationship. It also exposes you to people you would not be exposed to in your ‘real life’ and hence is helpful if you don’t meet many people or have something that makes you unappealing (this could be as simple a thing as advancing age). In my view it was debatable whether this was an advantage, however; I certainly did not think I was meeting a representative cross-section of single men in (roughly) my age bracket during my time online. On the contrary, much of the time, I felt I was meeting desperate, boring, socially ill-adjusted, deeply unattractive and sometimes downright frightening ones; men my peers in school or university would have lost no time in deeming ‘losers’ (and I am only talking about the men who were inside my specified age-range). There are a few exceptions, amongst whom I am happy to count two male friends I met on ‘Singletown’ (dates who I got on with but were lacking a romantic element).

Photo by William Iven (Unsplash)

A series of studies spearheaded by Paul Eastwick in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest claimed to demonstrate that people lack insight regarding which characteristics in a potential partner will ensure their attraction to him or her. Hence, the researchers concluded, it is unlikely that singles will make better decisions if they browse online profiles for twenty hours than if they browse them for twenty minutes. I would modify these conclusions: people do know what they are attracted to, and on a case-by-case basis, but only when they are confronted with it in the flesh, not a paragraph of text and a series of photographs; you may think you will get on well with an academic and in reality find you hit it off famously with someone who fries fish.

The mathematical algorithms on matching sites are negligibly better than matching people at random because what makes people attractive to one another is well-nigh indefinable; both describing yourself and reading descriptions of others, there is no way you can convey yourself to another or form an opinion of them in turn. A further problem with online dating is that many users do not attempt to convey an accurate picture of themselves. Person to person contact is the only way to know if you are attracted to someone, though talking on Skype is a good second option.

As I had cause to ponder, though, the ends (which are not guaranteed and rather unlikely at the best of times) may not be worth the means: ‘marketing’ yourself online is tiring and can be both demoralising and destabilising; it is artificial, stressful and time-consuming. I would not advise women, in particular, to try online dating, but if, like me, a woman’s options are extremely limited, I would tell her to remember above all else that online dating has rather different rules to the ‘real world’, a lot of it feels ludicrous, demoralising and futile, and that you must have a thick skin.

I would like to see an online dating site or app that consists of video profiles, whereby users describe themselves via video. No photographs need be used or written statements. Only certain mandatory information should be included: heights, mental and physical illnesses, criminal convictions, job history, age (a passport shot should be compulsory), marital and parental status (again, relevant documents should be provided). It continually amazed me during my time on ‘Singletown’ how many men felt it worthwhile to lie about such obvious things as age or height; it was such a waste of everyone’s time – theirs included – and usually profoundly depressing all round to boot. If I was single I would be prepared to pay a fair amount for a site that had honest user profiles with no judgement attached: someone wants sex – fine; someone wants marriage and kids – also fine.

Until that kind of platform is invented or if my current relationship ends, I will not be renewing an online dating subscription. I will be going to a bar or a coffee shop. I will sit down, take a deep breath and look around. Then I will attempt to start a conversation with someone. I may offer to buy them a drink. If I am not enjoying myself I will move on. And on. If an exchange does not work at least it will be over quickly; at least I will not have spent weeks, possibly months, invested in a sequence of coding, a conglomeration of pixels on a screen; at least there will not be a wrenching date and a torturous journey home.

I’ll keep doing that. I won’t feel ashamed and I won’t feel afraid. Well, I will feel afraid, probably, for quite a while. But at some point, I’ll cease to. It is inevitable. And I will try, very hard, not to feel the shame that has been my companion all my life, because I will be doing something there is nothing to be ashamed about: I will simply be taking my life into my own hands.

I will remind myself I am a good person. I am interesting, sometimes funny. I am a writer, and I am other things too. I am intense and I am sensitive. I am vulnerable and I am brave. Most of the time I am honest. I try to be kind.

I am an unusual person who has had an unusual life. Perhaps I am even a usual person who has had an unusual life. And there is no need to feel ashamed, about any of that.